World Zionist election results mark historic power shift

NEW YORK — The battle for religious rights in Israel has triggered a historic shift in the power balance in the World Zionist Organization, the entity that gave birth to modern Zionism 100 years ago.

Using religious pluralism as its rallying cry, the Reform movement's Zionist arm captured 47.7 percent of the vote in the elections for the 33rd Zionist Congress, which is slated for Jerusalem in December. It more than doubled its support since the last Congress in 1992.

The Conservative movement's Zionist branch claimed 26 percent of the U.S. vote. U.S. Jewry represents 29 percent of the Congress.

The victory means that the Reform and Conservative movements will capture key leadership positions within the WZO establishment. They will also wield influence over the $400 million annual budget of the WZO's partner, the Jewish Agency for Israel.

At least half of that money is contributed through the United Jewish Appeal by U.S. Jews.

Showings of classical Zionist organizations, including U.S. affiliates of the Likud and Labor parties, were weak, prompting Reform Zionist leaders to say those groups had "sung their swan song."

Reform leaders greeted their victory by declaring a new "values-based Zionism" based on the "principle of mutual respect" between Israel and the diaspora.

"The new Zionism will not allow the subjugation of our traditions and democratic heritage," Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, and Philip Meltzer, its president, said in a statement.

"Religious pluralism has been placed at the center of the concerns of American Jewry."

Rabbi Robert Golub, executive director of the Conservative's Mercaz, echoed the proclamation of change.

"American Jewry has spent the last 50 years building the state of Israel and the next 50 years we will be building and shaping the Jewish society of Israel, based on pluralism and tolerance."

American Friends of Likud won 1.9 percent of the vote, in spite of pouring what were said to be enormous sums into the race, including the cost of sending videotapes to more than 70,000 homes.

Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert personally campaigned for his party, calling Likud the best defender of Israel's security.

Likud's share was little more than the 1.5 percent of a brand-new slate out of Baltimore, called American Zionists for Unity and Tolerance, headed by Shoshana Cardin, chair of the United Israel Appeal.

In other results, the Labor Zionist Movement's share was 3.4 percent. That of the World Confederation of United Zionists, a coalition of classical Zionist parties, was less than 1 percent. The Zionist Organization of America, headed by Morton Klein, won 2.9 percent.

The Reform sweep reflects ARZA's success in capitalizing on mounting non-Orthodox U.S. Jews' anger over controversial conversion legislation pending in the Israeli Knesset.

ARZA officials broadened the election far beyond a little-known WZO into a referendum on the rights and legitimacy of Reform Judaism and the need for tolerance and diversity in Israel. In the campaign, they emphasized the unusual opportunity they were offering American Jews to have a voice in Israeli affairs.

That initiative, which would codify the de facto Orthodox monopoly over conversions performed in Israel, had come to be seen as a symbol of systemic delegitimation of non-Orthodox streams there.

o"We saw the elections as a way to influence the wider discussion," Hirsch of ARZA said.

"American Jews rendered their verdict in black and white," he said. "It was a vote of no confidence in the government policies on Israel-diaspora affairs."

For Karen Rubinstein, executive director of the American Zionist Movement, the umbrella Zionist organization that administered the race, the outcome reflected "who had access, who had the ability to reach large numbers of Jews."

It also showed which issues "caught the public imagination and resonated."

Golub of Mercaz said the overall election was a clear win for "the liberal, progressive forces representing the overwhelming majority of American Jewry and the American Zionist movement."

The showing of the left-wing American Friends of Meretz, with 4.5 percent, seemed to buttress his claim.

The rabbi noted that it was also a vote for religious-based Zionism.

The Orthodox group, the Religious Zionist Movement, drew 10.8 percent. The three main religious streams garnered some 85 percent of the vote.

Already, Labor and Likud have made a deal to rotate the chairmanship of the WZO and Jewish Agency, currently held by Laborite Avraham Burg. The deal calls for Burg to hold the post for the next two years, to be succeeded by an as-yet-unnamed Likud member.

But ARZA, with its new strength, must weigh in. It supports Burg but has indicated it would "reserve judgment" on a Likud candidate. A sticking point is how delegates will be assigned to Hadassah, a powerful WZO member that opted out of the race.

It had requested 35 delegates. Some powerful parties within the WZO executive body sought to reduce the overall size of the U.S. delegation by reducing the number of delegates assigned to Hadassah.

ARZA rejected that idea.

"It will be perceived as an attempt to steal the election," said ARZA's Hirsch. "It would be a naked power play that could bring down the American Zionist Movement."

The AZM also opposes such a move on constitutional grounds. The WZO constitution calls for the U.S. delegation to reflect 29 percent of the Congress' elected delegates. Hadassah delegates would not be elected.

The rest of the diaspora represents 33 percent of the Congress; Israel is allocated 38 percent of the delegates.

The Jewish Agency budget goes mostly to immigration and absorption and Jewish and Zionist education in the diaspora. If Reform has its way, it will step up the agency's support for progressive Jewish education and tolerance programs inside Israel.

An ideal platform for ARZA would be the chairmanship of the newly created Israel Department, which would oversee these programs with an estimated budget of $60 million.

Current Jewish Agency funding for programs of the three religious streams and promoting tolerance and Jewish unity in Israel is $17.5 million annually.

Officials at American Friends of Likud had no comment.

Sources at a WZO executive meeting this week said a suggestion came from Likud quarters that the race be referred to the WZO comptroller to weigh its fairness.

But Ehud Haviv, the comptroller, said that about three weeks ago he met with AZM election officials and their contractors, including the computer service counting the ballots.

He said that while his inquiry was not complete, "my initial impression was positive."